13 January, 2007

Too much preaching?

I don't recall why exactly, but I was poking around the Vatican's website last night, and I wandered onto the encyclical Humani generis redemptionem of Pope Benedict XV. He had the unenviable position of serving as pope during the first world war. He discharged his duties in such a way that the current pope has taken his name as inspiration.

The encyclical begins with the following observation:

[I]f We look around us and count those who are engaged in preaching the Word of God, We shall find them more numerous perhaps than they have ever been before. If on the other hand We examine the state of public and private morals, the constitutions and laws of nations, We shall find that there is a general disregard and forgetfulness of the supernatural, a gradual falling away from the strict standard of Christian virtue, and that men are slipping back more and more into the shameful practices of paganism.

The basic thrust of the encyclical is that there was too much shallow preaching going on, designed more to tickle the ears of the faithful and to sound witty or fashionable, more than to lead the hearer to salvation:
But since among the truths revealed by God there are some which frighten the weakness of our corrupt nature, and which therefore are not calculated to attract the multitude, they carefully avoid them, and treat themes, in which, the place accepted, there is nothing sacred. Not seldom it happens that in the very midst of a discourse upon the things of eternity, they turn to politics, particularly if any questions of this kind just then deeply engross the minds of their hearers. They seem to have only one aim, to please their hearers and curry favor with those whom St. Paul describes as "having itching ears." [II Tim. vi:3] Hence that unrestrained and undignified gesture such as may be seen on the stage or on the hustings, that effeminate lowering of the voice or those tragic outbursts; that diction peculiar to journalism; those frequent allusions to profane and non-Catholic literature, but not to the Sacred Scriptures or the Holy Fathers; finally that volubility of utterance often affected by them, wherewith they strike the ears and gain their hearers' admiration, but give them no lesson to carry home. How sadly are those preachers deceived!
If this style sounds familiar, it may be due to the number of American seminaries and homiletics publications that offer this format as a model homily.

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